In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton considers two episodes in the mid-18th century when governments were subject to mass resignations…
Between 5 and 7 July 2022, over 60 members of Boris Johnson’s government resigned, the highest number of resignations in a limited period in British political history. Few 18th-century governments saw as many departures, but many of the period’s administrations were formed following concerted ministerial resignations. Those resigning in 2022 aimed to topple their own prime minister and bring about a new government. Under the Georgians, it was usually the prime minister himself, and leading ministers, who resigned in order to force the king to choose between equally unpalatable ministers, often against his will.
George II in particular had strong opinions about his ministers. He preferred John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, a German-speaker advocate of a pro-Hanoverian policy. However, the king had been forced to agree to Granville’s departure as secretary of state in November 1744 after receiving what was in effect an ultimatum from Henry Pelham, first lord of the Treasury and effectively prime minister, and his elder brother, Thomas Pelham Holles, duke of Newcastle, the other secretary of state.
The king nevertheless continued to take advice from Granville who, against the wishes of the Pelhams, dissuaded George from taking the incendiary anti-Hanover orator, William Pitt the Elder, into government. The Pelhams, fearing that they too would be dismissed, engaged in a game of brinkmanship with the king. On 10 February 1746 they and the leading ministers in the government all resigned, followed by several more junior ministers, ‘down to the lowest clerks’. ‘The whole nation, which for four years had seemed possessed with a madness of seizing places, now ran into the opposite frenzy of quitting them’. [Horace Walpole, Memoirs of George II, i. 171-2] In the space of a few days in February 1746, somewhere in the region of 45 government ministers resigned, dismantling the government while the country was still threatened by the Jacobite rebels.
At first, George II turned to Granville and William Pulteney, earl of Bath, to form a new ministry. Over two days they struggled to form a government but got no further than choosing four ministers (including themselves). On the third day of this ‘meteor-like ministry’, with ‘no volunteers coming in’, Bath and Granville conceded defeat. The victorious Pelhamites laid further strict conditions on the king as they returned to office. Pitt was brought into the government, but as paymaster general rather that secretary at war. They also insisted that the king could only work with his official ministers and should discard non-ministerial advisers.
Ten years later George II was again forced to accept ministers he disliked. Henry Pelham died in March 1754 and was replaced by his brother Newcastle as first lord of the Treasury. Britain’s renewed war with France in 1755-6 started badly, culminating in the humiliating loss of Minorca in 1756. As a hostile parliamentary session approached in the autumn of 1756, Henry Fox, the government’s leader of the Commons, felt unsupported by Newcastle. In order to shore up his position, Fox tendered his resignation just before the session was set to commence. This time the ploy did not work. The king accepted Fox’s resignation and then turned reluctantly to Newcastle to form a ministry that would incorporate Pitt instead. ‘The Great Commoner’, though, refused to serve with Newcastle, prompting Newcastle in turn to tender his resignation. This time, apart from his friend the lord chancellor Philip Yorke, earl of Hardwicke, Newcastle could not persuade any more of his colleagues to resign with him. Eventually in early November William Cavendish, 4th duke of Devonshire, agreed to head a new government, with Pitt as secretary of state.
The way seemed clear, however, for Newcastle’s quick return to office as Pitt found it difficult to work with Devonshire’s cadre of loyal Whigs in the Commons. Most of all the king remained hostile towards Pitt and dismissed him from office in early April 1757. This time it took much longer to from a new administration. Fox tried first but, following his failure, over the summer a number of emissaries, most often Hardwicke, tried to negotiate with all the mutually antagonistic parties.
Eventually the king turned to James Waldegrave, 2nd Earl Waldegrave. Like the previous Bath-Granville government, Waldegrave’s was short-lived – only four days – before Newcastle threw in his trump card. Either independently or at Newcastle’s request, Robert Darcy, 4th earl of Holdernesse, secretary of state for the northern department, resigned. Significantly, Holdernesse tendered his resignation on 9 June, the day after Waldegrave was tasked with forming his ministry. Newcastle denied to Waldegrave that he had had any influence in Holdernesse’s departure, but at the same time seemed to threaten Waldegrave that ‘with a single Word, he could cause so many Resignations, as would give the Court a very empty appearance’. [Waldegrave, Memoirs, 203] Waldegrave also suspected that Newcastle was working behind his back, dissuading others from taking up the posts he offered them in his government.
Faced with a diminishing pool of candidates from which to fill places, Waldegrave gave up and the king was again forced to turn to Newcastle to build a working administration. It took several more weeks before Pitt and Newcastle, with Hardwicke acting as intermediary, could reach a modus vivendi. The new ministry was not confirmed until early July 1757, three months after Pitt’s dismissal, which had started the crisis of the ‘interministerium’ as Walpole dubbed it. Newcastle had ‘forced’ his way into office again, and brought with him Pitt, by his skilful use of the well-timed resignation.
From such inauspicious beginnings emerged the ministry of 1757-61, which is now considered one of the more successful among British governments. It oversaw Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War, which established the foundations for the first British empire in North America, and provided the basis for Britain’s global ambitions and conduct for decades to come.
Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George II, 3 vols., ed. Lord Holland (1847)
The memoirs & speeches of James, 2nd Earl Waldegrave 1742-1763, ed. J.C.D. Clark (1988)
Life and Correspondence of Philip Yorke, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, 3 vols, ed. Philip C. Yorke (1913)